Waking the Dead with Lazarus Beach

I moved back to Alabama in 2006 after an unsuccessful (organic chemistry is a bitch), debt-throttling (NYC is a bitch), lonely (being the weird, poor, rural kid is a bitch) year at New York University. It was pure defeat in August 2006, returning to Alabama, all the premature dreams of leaving the south and becoming this continental Woman of the World totally crushed. I had no idea what I was doing coming out of high school in Baldwin County, having taken out a bundle of loans (amounts that didn’t even make sense to me), hoping it would all be worth it when I became the doctor I'd always said I'd be since childhood.

And then suddenly here I was, 19 and clueless, in Tuscaloosa and resigned to the University of Alabama for the relief of in-state tuition and the more manageable social/financial scape. I broke up with my very devoutly Christian boyfriend of two years through a text message. I did my own 180 from the faith and spent the first few months in town absolutely plastered, projectile vomiting whatever swill they were slinging at house parties in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham (45 minutes apart). Hunch punch? Good God.  

Then came the music.

In May 2007, Birmingham-based psychedelic/folk rock band Through the Sparks released their first full-length LP, Lazarus Beach. The album is now being re-released on vinyl for the 15th anniversary of its original debut with Birmingham label Skybucket Records.

This record is stunningly dynamic, y’all. The best kind of eclectic indie-pop, it’s got just about everything you could ever want, with its wide range of guitar sounds, strings, horns, percussion, and a bunch of other instruments that sound like they were unearthed from the sand at Coney Island. In a 2007 interview with Glide Magazine, Jody Nelson jokes that their sound is "like the Band trying to cover a Flaming Lips song using Wilco’s studio equipment if it were all slightly malfunctioning." Sold. And Rob Alley on horns sends me. But while Lazarus Beach is technically and artistically fantastic, the most potent aspect of this album in my listening is its evocative power, no doubt in part because it's hailing from 2007. And 2007 was a time. ::applies eye cream::

I first got introduced to the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham music scene in 2007 when I made loose friendships with a raucous little group of emo and pop punk kids, mutuals of my best high school friend and roommate at the time, Jeannie Scott, and locals to Tuscaloosa. It was my first venture into warehouse, house, and small venue shows. I'd search for these moody little local bands on Myspace, make eyes at the hot guys with the skunked out bangs, and pray to Jesus that one of them would put me in their Top 8. I'd arrive at the venue and immediately get to mean-mugging in the back, wearing the studded belt and the heavy eyeliner, aiming to brood and look mysterious/alluring. I suppose everyone must go through their terrible music phase, and I simply could not let go of 30 Seconds to Mars to impress some boy with too many belts.

Boy did I try it. Virgin shit. It is a fun irony that this was also the year I switched from pre-med to a double major in English and anthropology. The memes today are all true, I’m afraid. I’m the reason the country is going to hell. Rawr xD.

Coming at the album from a nostalgic angle, the second track on Lazarus Beach, “Mexico,” grounds this insatiable need to adapt and conquer so familiar to all us 19-year-olds who thought we were hot shit with, you know, the usual American egomania:

"Steady as she grows,
Down to Mexico ... worth every damn buffalo.
Everybody sprawl. Let’s find out how space-age, these polymers can be.
But I could never be alone.
And I could never be at home.
Please Dianetically explain this urge to roam.
In the name of Kennedy, let’s give the moon a mall."

The poetic, wry lyrics are perfectly balanced by the warm-but-temperamental personality underlying its resonant organ pulsing, fuzzy cymbals, and jangly guitar. Contextualizing the imperialistic nature of America illuminated in "Mexico" with the rites of passage for kids in college in 2007--that central conflict between desire, duty, and identity--feels perfectly apt.

Call it ego, but I often find it helpful to ground musical experience in personal context. Where was I when Lazarus Beach was originally released? In April 2007, I would have been riding my shitty little scooter to go to work at Smoothie King, rain or shine, freezing or sweltering. In May 2007,  I would have been moving out of Jeannie’s house after a huge fight about finances and her asshole friends. We would have been fighting about the damage my cat did to the carpet after she locked her in my bedroom while I was at work.

Two years later, in 2009, I would see Through the Sparks perform, though I do not recall the venue (Workplay? The Nick?). I remember the warm light, the brisk air, and smoking too many cigarettes. I do remember feeling full.

That same year, I’d be getting a phone call that Jeannie had overdosed on fentanyl at a house party in Tuscaloosa. Three months after that, my grandmother would pass after a few years battling Alzheimer’s. This isn’t about me; it’s about the grounding. It’s about what I would need after that (and what I suspect everyone else would need).

I did not follow up with the band’s work after seeing them, but hearing this record now, I feel that was a misstep. But what do you even do when you miss a small detail? What if that small detail grows impossibly large and devastating? There is no going back. We miss things, the special details that can only be sensed when the body is ready, and we will always miss something for the rest of our lives. Such are the absurd, brutal impossibilities Lazarus Beach seems to be playfully nudging at.

Me and Jeannie

In the opening track, “L. Roi,” we get one such noted impossibility setting an ironic tone for the rest of the album--its lyrics morbid and its instrumentation poppy and lilting. Singer Jody Nelson almost struggles to get the words out above the track's repeating six-note melody while contemplating a friend's suicide:

"When the water came from the master bath,
it let your neighbors know,
you’re not okay.
It came out. it came out ...
in the road
Out in the road. In the road.
And the eddies came through the kitchen floor,
where you had your daily smoke.
and it came out so clear,
and it carried you clear, so clear, so clear, so clear.
And they got your soul...your soul.
And they carried you out.
And it carried you out. And it carried you out."

It’s only when the bright, ironically easy composition has nearly broken entirely apart that its deep, punctuated Destroyeresque saxophone catches this trust fall of a song, carrying it kindly to its conclusion, ending with a sweet, almost tart horn section: "And it carried you out. It carried you out. It carried you out."

God dammit y’all. What would we even do without such kindness?

Over the next several years, I’d lose many more friends, close and distant, from the local music scene and from my youth in south Alabama, to drugs and suicide. We would lose a city to a tornado. And over time the “I” would become “we.” We would lose, and then we would gain, and lose again, over and over, back and forth—an ever-expanding and contracting organ pipe pulsing into the ground. We would dance very closely, nearly holding each other, nearly levitating.

Another favorite on the album has to be “Action Figure Graveyard Pt. II,” with its haunting, almost tropical underlay, like a choir of undead vacationers. There's a weness to this track that's hard to place, its smooth collective voice existing just below the surface of its looser, crunchier instrumentation:

"Me and you let’s honeymoon,
Where the summer screams. And the dead have risen—
from the action figure graveyard.
And the summer screams.  And the summer screams."

The other tracks on the album are equally strong, another notable being "Local Moon" with more imaginative and dynamic instrumentation and lyrical work:

"Taste of metal brings you right back here my dear,
when you’re staring at your local moon, when you’re staring at your local moon.
And you can laugh it up man, go ahead.
You can laugh it up man, go ahead.
“Hey good eye, good eye,” from the fertilized lawns like a choir.
This dirty, filthy summer is someone else’s,
underneath suburban skies."

I love each of the tracks, and while there is plenty to recommend each one, I'd say they are best experienced with a full album listen. It's not a very long LP, only around 36 minutes, which is comfortable and just small enough to think about in its complete shape. The transitions between tracks are purposeful and while each is unique unto itself in style and content, the LP listens like a complex, at times disjointed, unit. But I find that lack of unity to be incredibly endearing and organic.

I get a sense of being in the room of this album recording, and too much control can sanitize away the charming idiosyncrasies of a more low-budget recording experience. We don't always have to put on airs, folks. Let the thing breathe. This one breathes and stretches its limbs far out to give a truly fun, emotive, expressive listening experience. There's too much to love about the messiness of the instrumentation, but there's even more to love about the lyrical work at the heart of the album.

Lazarus Beach is being re-issued on vinyl with new album art, the work of Birmingham designer Roy Burns III, and has been remastered with the treatment of Paul Logus, who boasts a wide, impressive range of artists.

I don’t always think albums deserve the clout of a re-release, especially on vinyl, but I’ve already purchased a copy of this one, because it’s just so stellar you guys. I'm looking forward to comparing the original to the remaster; vinyl catches things differently, and having gone through whatever this small, emotional experience has been, I cannot stress the importance of trying to hear/see/feel things from different angles; when time has passed, you have no choice but to do so. It's just the way of things. This album evokes a lot of local music memories, local music tragedies, and sentiments of the time for me in a way that feels fresh and meaningful after 15 years of fuzzy details marrying in the mind’s petri dish. It's all just so delicate and bittersweet.

In that same Glide Magazine interview, guitarist Nikolaus Mimikakis ponders his friendship with the band and how they've stayed together for so long as friends:

"I think that if we did not play music together we would probably all drift apart. It’s only natural. We spend a lot of time together and have a blast. But I think music has created a bond that seems to be unbreakable and I love it."

I think that's probably true for friendships over time, bandmates or not. That music can be such a powerful adhesive, and, in the case of this review, a powerful vehicle into the past is still shocking to me. I suppose it shouldn't be such a surprise.

I don't quite know where I was trying to go with this write-up, or why I landed here. I'm really glad I came back to Alabama and built a life here amidst the tragedy. I'm proud to have learned from local music and to have built truly meaningful relationships from it. Nostalgia can be obnoxiously self-indulgent, and perhaps I'm guilty of a little of that here. It's just so easy to go there (we do love ourselves, don’t we)! But this album does so much more than that, and I guess I wanted to gesture at it in a more general, experience-based sort of way. This album takes a sort of active role for me, re-entering a dark room to develop a far-reaching, wide-angle picture of a time that was so crucial to me (us) and my (our) frontal lobe development—a tragic and beautiful photograph of intertwining experience, not just for me, but for thousands of people who needed something to ground all that happened. To all of us.

Skybucket Records will be releasing Lazarus Beach on vinyl on October 14, 2022. Pre-order it HERE.

You can also listen to the original here:

[bandcamp width=400 height=472 album=277801995 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=0687f5 artwork=small]

I can't recommend it enough.

Kori Hensell
Kori Hensell
Music Director and Head Writer